Up in heaven, Cole Porter and Philip Barry, who never collaborated down here below, have probably been turning out dazzling musicals year after year. Would that one such effort, even the least, had floated down to the Morosco last evening where "Happy New Year," a pale imitation of the genuine article, opened.
This intimate musical has been concocted by Burt Shevelove, who also directed it, from Barry's romantic comedy "Holiday" and from a sampling of Porter songs familiar and unfamiliar. There's even one number, "Boy, Oh, Boy," (originally "Pitter-Patter," from a 1922 "Hitchy Koo" that closed out of town) for which Shevelove has provided new words, and another, "Once Upon a Time," which closes both acts, for which he's completed the lyrics to one of Porter's trunk tunes.
The result is a limp period show doing justice to neither Barry nor Porter who, you may recall, did turn out some nifty tunes toward the end of his career for the dead playwright's (Barry preceded Porter to heaven) "The Philadelphia Story" in a musical called "High Society."
Those who remember "Holiday," especially in the knockout Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant movie, will recall that Johnny Case, an up-and-coming young financier of humble background, is engaged to marry Julia Seton of the Fifth Ave. Setons, an enormously rich banking family. But Johnny's philosophy, to retire young and work later, doesn't meet with either Julia's favor or her dad's (the elder Seton is a widower). It does with Julia's younger sister Linda, though, and in the end she runs off with Johnny.
Shevelove hasn't had sufficient faith in the story, which Barry's buoyant dialogue carried off, to leave it alone, or simply trim it to musical needs. He's invented a Narrator, played by a white-haired John McMartin in a dinner jacket. The Narrator (there's a trick "Maytime" device I won't expose further here) is an oldster living in the present and cueing us in on the events taking place in the Seton mansion during the winter of 1933-34 (Barry's play was set in 1928.) When he isn't introducing scenes, McMartin leans against the proscenium looking on with a benign smile that almost certainly conceals utter boredom. He gets to sing half of "Night and Day" at the start of the second half, and Linda now and then exchanges a few words with him or gives him a friendly nudge.
Linda is played by Leslie Denniston, a brunette who, to her advantage and ours, has mastered Hepburn's flashing grin while quite naturally being unable to match the other's incomparable looks. She also takes part, with two of the dancing boys, in the evening's liveliest set piece, a breezy song-and-dance routine (Donald Saddler did the dances) to "Let's Make It a Night," a song dropped from "Silk Stockings." Another leftover, this one from "Red, Hot and Blue," is "When Your Troubles Have Started," and it provides a reasonably entertaining next-to-closing song-and-dance duet for Linda and her alcoholic brother Ned, acceptably set forth by Richard Bekins.
Julia is portrayed by the willowy, sharp-featured, almost too-blond Kimberly Farr, who does very nicely by Porter's lovely, witty and strangely neglected "Ours." Michael Scott makes a passable juvenile as Johnny. He has his best moment with another beguiling but seldom-heard ballad, "After You, Who?", and his poorest when, anachronistically, he says, inquiring of Linda and Ned, "Are they good guys?"
The songs skip all over Porter's career, and I do mean skip, for such standards as "At Long Last, Love," "Ridin' High" and "You Do Something to Me" make far less impression than they should. The entrancing "Easy to Love" is used only as a musical accompaniment, in various tempos, for a Saddler ballroom dance scene. Oddly Porter's presence is often felt most strongly in the background music played by an offstage band. A zippy introductory chorus of "Just One of Those Things" raises our expectations; a haunting piano solo of "Looking at You" underscores a love scene; and band backgrounds of "Let's Do It" and "You've Got That Thing" lift our spirits temporarily.
But "Happy New Year" never takes off for long. Even Linda's private New Year's Eve party in the top-floor playroom is earthbound. And the fact that the story has been moved up to the Depression years with references to the great revue "As Thousands Cheer" and the elder Seton's (William Roerick) admonition to Johnny that "we're not back in the '20s," doesn't help matters either. "Holiday" is an inseparable part of the bubbly years.
Funny, though she never belonged in the same theater with Barry, I kept longing for the young Ethel Merman's exultant, startlingly clear voice, particularly in those songs she introduced, "Ridin' High" among them. ANd I kept wishing for something else: for Barry and Porter locked up right now in a New Haven or Boston hotel room, dashing off new scenes and new songs and, of course, a whole new show.
Those great names Cole Porter and Phillip Barry ought to go together as ecstatically as Franklin and Roosevelt or Lincoln and Center. Burt Shevelove's idea of making a musical from a Barry play and throwing in Porter music ought to be a unalloyed delight. Last night at the Morosco Theater, where Shevelove's brainchild Happy New Year finally saw the light of night, the result was distinctly alloyed.
It wasn't precisely Granada, as Porter put it, it was much more Asbury Park. And I've been to both places, althogh luckily, like Porter, I know the former rather better.
First for the happy sounds. You are certainly not going to be insulted by Happy New Year. The book could do with a few zingy one-liners - come to think of it two-liners, or even ocean-liners, would not have been entirely misplaced - and you won't come out humming any music you didn't go in remembering. Still that's even true of most of the new musicals these days. And it is a playful, tuneful, civilized musical.
The real trouble with Happy New Year is that you have to create a musical. You cannot fabricate them over other people's cold geniuses. Shevelove is a smart cookie as a director, but he hasn't quite got the creative mystery that could awaken into life this almost possible dream.
He has created awesome mayhem on Barry's original play Holiday. He has turned a stylish comedy of manners into a commonplace book musical. He has introduced a commentator, who would have been totally irrelevant to the play but is possibly necessary to a musical needing an element of nostalgic fantasy to make the song and dance routines feasible if not practicable.
Shevelove started his project at the Canadian Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. He would have been well-advised to have left it right there, I saw it in Stratford and decided it was an out-of-town opening that was not appropriate for New York comment. Shevelove has worked on it, made a few slight changes to the book, almost entirely replaced the score - it was originally unknown Porter - and changed the cast.
It is now perhaps seven, even eight, times as good as the bardic disaster in Stratford. And it still doesn't quite work. Yet because of the remnants of Barry's play hanging disconsolately around, the Porter tunes, always the real turtle soup and never the mock, and a handful of talented performances, the evening misses with some degree of distinction. Nothing truly comes together. But some of its hole is rather more than its parts.
Shevelove himself, normally a gifted director, never seems sure whether he is directing legitimate comedy or a musical. The play, as such is strewn with pauses for artfully but artificially introduced songs that seem as strangely abrasive as boulders on sandpaper.
The scenery by Michael Eagan looks rather like chunks of monumental masonry reduced to jumble-sale trivia, but the costumes by Pierre Balmain, and supervised by John Falabella, are gems of period re-creation. These are absolutely stunning with all the class in the world, and also my compliments to the anonymous wig-makers, hair-dressers and make-up artists. They make everyone look like passengers on the maiden voyage of the S.S. Normandie.
Finally, and this together with the always adorable, always martini-crisp and crazily literate Porter songs and the lovely cast, may make the show a Broadway winner, there is the carefully, but never too carefully, exquisite choreography by Donald Saddler, who uses sheer expertise to turn pastiche into one of the fine arts.
Then the performers. The cast is an absolute bunch of sweethearts. John McMartin, who makes suave so leisurely that you wonder whether he is actually going to charm himself off-stage, is a delight in the role of the narrator; almost by his sheer presence justifying its irrelevency to the proceedings. William Roerick is super as a more than super-rich father wanting to marry his eldest daughter off to a sound-minded businessman.
The four juveniles are all fun. Kimberly Farr is the snooty society heiress, Michael Scott is the exuberant new-rich stockbroker who wants to marry her, and Richard Bekins is delightful as an alcoholically-inclined brother. But the surprise, the hit and the honey is Leslie Denniston as Linda, the younger sister learning how to get her man. This is a whiz-girl who is going to ride to stardom on a rocket.
So it ain't Granada. But it ain't bad. It has nice kids, nice music and it's here. Take a chance with it.
In "Happy New Year," Burt Shevelove imagines what it would have been like if Cole Porter had written a musical based on Philip Barry's romantic comedy "Holiday." With music borrowed liberally from Porter's extensive catalogue of tunes, this is a hybrid, a kind of cross-pollinated show. On its own terms, "Happy New Year," which opened last night at the Morosco Theater, turns out to be a musical bouquet of gentle charm and piquancy.
Porter and Barry are partners in urbanity and wit. As composer and playwright, they would have been an ideal Broadway team. However, their sole collaboration was "High Society," the musical film version of "The Philadelphia Story," made after Barry's death. With his new show, Mr. Shevelove joins them in a three-way collaboration, combining their talents with his own theatrical skillfulness.
Last summer Mr. Shevelove, as adapter and director, tested the show at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival, and it seemed at the time like a good idea gone awry. Since then, as an experienced play doctor, he has repaired his own musical. More than half of the songs are different, the entire cast has changed, and there has been considerable rewriting between the Barry lines. The result is in all respects an improvement over Mr. Shevelove's earlier version.
The play (and the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant movie) deals with an eager young man who falls in love with the wrong rich girl. In the final scene he realizes that it is her young, unconventional sister whom he really loves and the two turn their backs on old money and old values for a shared life that should prove to be a holiday.
Mr. Shevelove has matched Barry's happy-go-lucky book with a fountain of effervescent Porter tunes. In the Stratford tryout, songs were largely lesser known and of middling quality. At the Morosco most of them are first-class and include many Porter favorites.
For some theatergoers, this method of creating a score may seem an act of infidelity, particularly in reference to Porter's "Red, Hot and Blue!", the 1936 source of four of the evening's outstanding numbers. Nostalgic musicals have often appropriated individual songs; in this case Mr. Shevelove has compiled an entire score from other musicals and recycled the songs to suit a different show. However, the principal question is, does the show fit? The answer is yes.
With the resourcefulness of a musicologist - he was assisted in the "editing" of the music by Buster Davis - Mr. Shevelove has chosen songs that are compatible with "Holiday." He has cleverly interpolated music within the dialogue, and even dialogue in the middle of lyrics. For example, as the two sisters discuss the betrothal of the elder, they move most beguilingly into "At Long Last Love." Later, the hero expresses his passion with "You Do Something to Me." Could Porter have said it any better if he had been asked to write an original score for "Holiday"?
At first, one song seems jarring in context. When she is rejected by her lover, the older sister (Kimberly Farr) sings "I Am Loved" (from the 1950 "Out of This World"). However, in her delivery the actress makes the song serve as an attempt to reassure herself of his love.
As director, Mr. Shevelove has freshened the music by matching it with talented young performers. Of the central quartet - the hero, the two sisters and their alcohol-hazed brother - only Miss Farr is familiar from other shows; she is most agreeably cast as Julia, the golden girl. Leslie Denniston brings a dash of her own brio to the rebellious Linda. As conceived by Mr. Shevelove and as played by the actress, Linda is more a Porter than a Barry heroine - not offhanded like Hepburn, but exuberant. Her good-time song is a lusty "Red, Hot and Blue."
As the hero, Michael Scott is more James Stewart than Cary Grant; the unabashed guilelessness also suits the role. He makes us believe, and root for, the character's boyish desire to play now and earn later. Richard Bekins has a most appealing naturalness as the bemused brother, who finally prods Linda into pursuing her own romantic vision. One can feel his regret at not being able to follow. William Roerick has the necessary firmness as the domineering father, a crusty banker with a billfold mind.
There is one other leading actor in the play, John McMartin as "the narrator." Inhabiting the stage like an after-hours idler, he tells the story, chats with Linda, and issues comments from a contemporary vantage point (sometimes amusing, sometimes arch). One sense that Mr. Shevelove did not have complete confidence in the durability of Barry's play or in the audience's ability to maintain a perspective on the genteel morality of the period. The narrator is the hoariest of devices, but the actor gives him a debonair presence. Mr. McMartin never shows discomfort or loses his smile. As we know, he is a most polished musical performer, which he demonstrates, briefly, with a chorus of "Night and Day."
Actors as servants move scenery and musicians play backstage in the manner of a dance band. The cast is elegantly attired and gowned by Pierre Balmain. With the aid of Donald Saddler as choreographer, Mr. Shevelove has staged a sheaf of intimate numbers including a blitheful duet for Miss Denniston and Mr. Bekins to the tune of "When Your Troubles Have Started." "Happy New Year" is a welcome end-of-season surprise.